The following situation occurred on Korean Air Flight #652 which departed from Bangkok at 10:45 p.m. on the evening of January 6, 2013. A passenger was quite agitated from the beginning of the flight, and this anxiety increased as the flight progressed. Over the next couple of hours this bizarre behavior escalated from running up and down the aisle, standing on the seat, chasing flight attendants and the like to attempting to open an exit door where this person was unfortunately seated. (She thought stepping outside at 30,000 feet for a cigarette might ease her anxiety.) A call for a physician was announced and my husband dutifully responded.
Due to his ministrations over the next hour, the passenger’s distress lessened. He advised the Purser this person should be removed first from the plane and taken for a medical screening. Approximately one-half hour before landing, he, the passenger and I were moved to first class to help get this person off the plane. For the remaining 1/2 hour, we attended to this passenger. A Korean Air attendant was to meet us at the gate to take said passenger for evaluation. The attendant was not there upon arrival, so the three of us were held on the plane while everyone else exited -- turning this problem over to us rather than the Korean Air staff where it belonged!
The passenger initially agreed to get into the wheelchair but then panic mounted resulting in refusal to go via wheelchair. The three of us were escorted to an alternate checkpoint with us providing our arms for physical and emotional support. Unfortunately, during the screening one of Korean Air’s agents, not understanding the very fragile mind everyone was dealing with, upset and frightened the passenger resulting in tears, hyperventilation and the throes of another breakdown. Due to our intercession, we finally got through this area and requested a supervisor to help us address the problem. We were then moved via back elevator to an area in the terminal near the Supervisor’s office. Understand that at this point, my husband had been with this passenger for almost 4 hours and me about three. We were all quite dehydrated by this time so I requested water for the three of us and was told the cafeteria was down the hall. Totally unacceptable considering the circumstances so I asked the attendant to simply cross the hall to the premier lounge and get water bottles. Two 8 oz. bottles were ultimately provided for the three of us. In the meantime, the passenger was on the floor rolling around, stretching, etc., while I and the KA attendant alternately held a blanket up to shield other passersby from the scene.
A manager finally appeared, and my husband again gave a detailed account of the the passenger’s paranoid-schizophrenic condition. This young man spoke perfect English and seemed to have a good grasp of the gravity of the circumstances. The passenger assented to go with him which, after a combined total of almost 8 hours of our time was a huge relief to us.
In summation, here are a couple of observations on how this incident was handled:
Preparation of Staff: Korean Air flight attendants seemed ill-prepared to deal with this type of problem. Granted, acute paranoid-schizophrenic behavior with elements of acute delirium is more difficult to manage than simpler medical problems such as chest pain, low blood sugar, etc., but there should be protocols for dealing with behavioral problems (intoxicated passengers, panic attacks) that could be equally applied here.
Lack of Communication and Continuity of Care: By the time we landed, the patient was more in control. Since there was ample warning in flight to notify terminal personnel to have resources available, the passenger should have disembarked first into the waiting arms of Korean Air employees, including security personnel, to be taken for medical evaluation. Instead, we were greeted by a nice young lady with a wheelchair who inquired, ”Where would you like to go with “your” friend?” This gave rise to the unabated 2-1/2 hour adventure after deplaning.
Korean Airlines necktie thanked us for all this work by sending a Korean Air necktie. Whoopie! Such overwhelming gratitude.
Was this mistreatment by Korean Air to two passengers whose vacations paid for out of their own pockets assisted this airlines? Technically, no. In practice, it was an offensive response when such extensive services were provided. The good news is that it can now be considered a teachable moment in hopes KA corrects such deficiencies in service.
My husband has often answered the call of airlines for a physician on board to help out which he does graciously on each occasion. His and my intervention in this instance went beyond the norm since we were unable to transfer KA's passenger to anyone for hours. To be told by them that their courtesy gesture of a thank you letter & necktie more than compensated for our discomfort physically and emotionally after such an incident and when we still had to connect to flights onward to Tokyo and Los Angeles was actually offensive. To have provided us with access to their Premier Lounge and an upgrade for the remaining two legs of our flight would have done much to soothe our tired bodies and souls ~ and definitely given them an opportunity to shown their gratefulness. Poor job, Korean Air!